When it comes to Gen Z teenagers, you can discard the old saw that “kids will be kids,” similar across generations based on their age and maturity level. Gen Z is different.

Ask young adults in Gen Z about their teen years and you will learn that, compared to previous generations:

  • More teens in Gen Z felt lonely and isolated.
  • They were less likely to have a significant other in their teen years.
  • They didn’t hang out with other teens as much.
  • With parents likely to be working full time, they didn’t have as many family meals together.
  • They are much less likely to have attended religious services regularly.
  • They consumed less alcohol, drugs and tobacco products.
  • They were less likely to have a part-time or summer job.
  • They were more likely to have had therapy as teens.

That’s all according to “Generation Z and the Transformation of American Adolescence: How Gen Z’s Formative Experiences Shape Its Politics, Priorities and Future,” a new survey report from the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life.

To compare generations, the researchers asked adults within each generational cohort to think back to their teen years. And to avoid “memory bias” — misremembering across the span of time — they asked each generation back to baby boomers about the kinds of big-picture events that people are apt to remember, like, “Did you have a boyfriend or girlfriend as a teen? Did you have a job?”

Despite the challenges like loneliness that the survey revealed, the report found Gen Z adults to be “optimistic.”

“Even as pessimism in politics has become ubiquitous, young people remain optimistic about the direction of their own lives,” the report said, adding that “78% of Gen Z adults say their best days are ahead of them.” That’s compared to 58% of millennials, 46% of Gen Xers and 33% of baby boomers.

About generations

In the report, Gen Z was considered to be those born between 1997 and 2012. Often, there’s a year or two variation in when different analyses consider a generation to have begun or ended. By this reckoning, Gen Z’s adults looking back on their teen years are between 20 and 26.

Daniel A. Cox directs the Survey Center on American Life and is a senior fellow in polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute. He told Deseret News that formative events help define generations.

The idea is that the same group of people are connected to their formative experiences and retain some characteristics throughout life. His example is the Depression: Many teens who grew up in the Depression with food scarcity now never waste food, even if they are well off, because of that formative experience.

While each generation is a different age group and will continue to be — “Boomers will always be older than millennials,” Cox said — there are distinctive attitudes or traits that are not the difference between being younger or older, but rather the difference between generations. For example, Gen Z is far more racially and ethnically diverse than previous generations, with “profoundly different attitudes about diversity policy and pluralism,” Cox said.

But to tease out which differences are generational and which are differences in age, they asked each generation to reflect back on their teen experiences and answer those big-picture questions about what life was like for them.

“We found really distinctive patterns,” Cox said.

McKinsey & Company notes members of Gen Z are the first “true digital natives.”

The report itself says that Gen Z’s cohort has a distinctive demographic profile. About half of Generation Z is non-Hispanic white, compared to 7 in 10 baby boomers. More than a third of Gen Z adults say they are not religiously affiliated, which is twice the number of boomers who say that.

“Being a member of a more diverse generation raises the probability of regular social interactions with people who do not share your racial or religious background, sexual identity or sexual orientation,” Cox and his co-authors wrote. “Diversity exposes people to a wider array of backgrounds and encourages commitment to pluralism. It’s not a coincidence that Gen Z adults are more likely than older generations to believe that America’s diversity is a source of strength for the country.”

The survey included a random sample of 5,055 adults living in the U.S., including in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., conducted Aug. 11-20. The participants were part of the Ipsos Knowledge Panel and data was adjusted for gender, race and ethnicity, education, census region, household income, race by gender, race by age, and race by education to make it nationally representative. The margin of error is 2 percentage points.

Cox’s co-authors are Kelsey Eyre Hammond, a research associate and project manager for the survey center, and Kyle P. Gray, a research associate there.

Loneliness and finding meaning

The report said Gen Z is less likely to report having had a romantic partner as a teen, at 56%; 41% said they did not have one. At least three-fourths of Gen X and boomers said they had one as a teen, while for millennials it was 69%. That generation gap for men was described as “stark.” Gen Z men are more than twice as likely as baby boomer men to report that they didn’t have a significant other as a teenager, at 44% versus 20%.

That doesn’t mean Gen Z never meets up with their pals. Now, 78% of Gen Z adults said they spent at least some of their teen years regularly hanging out with friends. But that’s down compared to millennials (84%), Gen X (89%) and boomers (88%). Only 40% of Gen Z said they spent a lot of time with friends as teens. Nearly 1 in 5 say they didn’t spend any of their teen years regularly socializing with friends.

As for loneliness, the impact can be long-lived. “There is a strong connection between teen loneliness and feelings of social isolation in adulthood,” the report said, calling it a pattern in evidence “across generations, even those who were teens a long time ago.”

“Twenty percent of baby boomers who report that they were lonely most or all of the time as teenagers say they often felt lonely over the past 12 months. In contrast, only 4 % of baby boomers who were not lonely as teenagers report having felt this way often in the past year. The gap is even larger among younger generations. Forty-two percent of Generation Xers who felt lonely for most or all of their teenage years say they often felt lonely in the past year, compared to 7% of Xers who were not lonely as teenagers. The gap is similar among millennials and largest among Gen Z adults (56% versus 6%).”

Wendy Walsh, psychologist and host of iHeartRadio’s “The Dr. Wendy Walsh Show” and the podcast “Mating Matters,” isn’t surprised that Gen Z is more lonely than other generations, she told Deseret News. She notes they spent some formative years in the great pandemic.

“These are crucial years for socialization, separating from family of origin and finding close intimate romantic relationships,” Walsh, who was not part of the study, said by email. “Many social ‘practice years’ were lost. And to that add the proliferation of social media, online pornography and texting versus talking, and Gen Z is experiencing a poor substitute for real connection.”

She also noted that young women may be feeling a “mate crunch,” a competition for the young men still willing to commit. “As for men, having many short-term, poor quality relationships can create a deep sense of loneliness.”

Gen Z may also feel more comfortable talking about feeling lonely than previous generations, said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University who is the scientific chair and a board member of both the Foundation for Social Connection and the Global Initiative on Loneliness and Connection.

She said older teens and young adults in Gen Z may face life transitions like leaving home for the first time and having to create a new social network or start a new job. Because they have less life experience, they may have fewer coping skills, she said.

Developmentally, there is an “expectation that social circles should be increasing, so heightened expectations may not match their personal experiences,” said Holt-Lunstad, also not involved in the study. Plus social media might have raised expectations through social comparison.

“Financial struggles can occur at any age and can increase risk of loneliness for anyone,” but older teens and young adults can be particularly vulnerable, said Holt-Lunstad, who also directs the Social Connections and Health Lab at BYU.

The survey found most people consider their lives meaningful, at least sometimes. But the number who often feel that way has been dwindling over succeeding generations, per the report. Just under half say that in the past 12 months, they have felt their life is meaningful either always or often. “Sometimes” is the response for 28%, while 13% said “rarely” and 9% said “never.”

The report notes that saying life is not meaningful is more common among those who never married, those who are not religious and those with little formal education. More than half of married adults (53%) find life has meaning, compared to 41% of those who never wed.

Religious people — especially members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and white evangelicals in the survey — said they find their lives meaningful.

Personal identity and a sense of self is also a challenge, especially for younger adults. More than half of young adults in Gen Z and nearly that share of millennials say they are not sure who they are supposed to be.

And not quite half of Gen Z adults worry at least sometimes that they don’t have enough friends. That’s a concern not nearly as prevalent in previous generations — and one that’s more likely a concern to young women than young men, 57% compared to 41% in Gen Z.

“Gen Z’s different, compared to other generations at the same age,” said Cox. “The idea that Gen Z is the ‘not’ generation was kind of borne out in this study. For a lot of things, they were just less involved.”

Cox said that for Gen Z, a lot of good social engagement is playing an interactive game online. “That is how a lot of the social interactions take place and they never hang out personally,” he said. Gen Z often fills time with internet activities, passive or active, whether they’re watching TikTok videos or engaging with friends on social media platforms like Instagram.

He recently told some students about his own experiences going to college, interacting with friends and growing up visiting people’s houses. “It was like I was talking another language to them,” he said.

Other findings and what to do with them

Cox said the report doesn’t interpret findings. “The policymakers can debate, discuss and disagree as much as they want about solutions or what people think the proximate causes are for some of this stuff. But that’s not my role. I want people to trust the results, no matter my own political views.”

He said while loneliness has been seen in other reports, many of the patterns the report identifies have been explored less.

The study found a gender gap in politics among young adult males and females: The females are much more liberal, the males a bit more conservative. Others have noted that, too. In June, marriage scholar Brad Wilcox and demographer Lyman Stone told Deseret News they worry marriage, which has already taken a hit with Gen Z, will fall in popularity even more if young people have strong ideological disagreements.

Cox said Gen Z men are less likely to consider themselves feminists than are either the Gen Z women or millennial men. “That’s pretty notable, that there’s a growing gender divide among the cohort,” he said of the philosophical difference between young men and women.

Across virtually all generations, involvement with religion has reduced substance use, including alcohol, drugs and tobacco. The more religious you are, the less likely you are to partake, except Gen Z. Cox said that the relationship between activity related to faith and substance use has been “decoupled” in that generation. Fewer Gen Z teens were involved in church activities, which would normally have suggested more substance use. Instead, Gen Z is less likely to use alcohol, drugs or tobacco.

But less likely does not mean no use. Among Gen Z adults who report having regularly attended religious services as teens, more than a third say they drank, smoked or used drugs at least some of the time. The rates among Gen Z adults who never went to a religious service is “remarkably similar.”